There are moments in one’s life where the sounds, smells, even the weather--- everything---remain frozen in time. No matter what the calendar says, it is a memory that replays as vividly as the day it happened.
You have kept an appointment that is lifechanging. You arrive and wait. In minutes, you learn the good news if you’re lucky. Or, you learn that what has happened to other women you know or have read about, has just happened to you.
“I was shocked and, yes, terrified,” recalled Pueblo resident Regi Benfatti as she recounted that February day in 1977. She was 46. But she was concerned that something might be wrong, and she wanted to find out what it was.
“I wasn’t expecting that diagnosis and, of course, didn’t know what stage it was yet.” For a moment, time stopped. The words she dreaded rang out with an unmistakable and time-stopping clarity. Breast cancer. But, in her case, if one can be ‘lucky’ with a cancer diagnosis, Benfatti surely was. It was caught early and treatable.
She underwent a lumpectomy---a surgical removal of the breast tumor along with a small portion of normal surrounding tissue followed by six weeks of radiation. Her relief was palpable. “I thought there was a strong possibility of it being a death sentence.”
Nearly 4,000 Colorado women this year will hear words like those Benfatti heard nearly four decades earlier. When the shock wears off women, like Benfatti, a Pueblo businesswoman, will learn more about this disease than they ever dreamed they’d know.
They will learn that one in eight women in this country will contract breast cancer in their lifetime; that, on average, 266,000 women will be diagnosed each year---also, more than 2,500 men; that nearly 41,000 women will die from breast cancer; that white and African-American women are at higher risk of breast cancer than Latinas, Asian-Americans and Native-American women.
Though Latinas are not diagnosed at the same rates as white and African-American women, breast cancer has a significantly higher toll on them. It is the most common form of cancer among Latinas with higher mortality rates. Also, when diagnosed, cancerous tumors are larger and at a more advanced stage.
Breast cancer is also diagnosed in Latinas at a younger age than other groups. Screening and access to health care are given as reasons for these factors. Family history also plays a higher role in breast cancer incidents. This seems like an anomaly that runs counter among other women.
Unlike family history among Latinas connecting generations. Research has shown that approximately 85 percent of all breast cancer occurs in women with no history of the disease. Benfatti’s family had none. History or not, after her successful treatment in 1977, it struck again.
It was fall of 2011 when she noticed a visible lump in her breast. “I suspected it was cancer.” She went to the doctor, underwent testing and waited. Just days before her October birthday, her 61st, she got the call.” While the news was disarming, this time “I was very calm.” Her cancer had returned.
Her first experience with cancer was an education. She had learned a lot about the disease including her options. She was also adamant about what she didn’t want. “My oncologist suggested chemo(therapy), but I was very much against it.” Like any person in her situation, her choice was difficult but, to her, also practical. “I chose to have a double mastectomy because I didn’t want to live in fear of it coming back.”
Benfatti continues to live a normal life. She works every day and has shown no sign of a recurrence. She has also taken another step and undergone genetic testing to learn if she has the gene that could be passed on to her daughter. The test was negative.
Beginning in 1990, rates of breast cancer began declining among American women. But just because there’s been a decline, The American Cancer Society’s Jackie Woods warned that all women of a certain age need to be screened for breast cancer. Woods preaches that annual mammograms are the best bet. “At the age of forty, begin talking to your doctor (about breast cancer),” said Woods.
While there is no predicting who will get breast cancer, Woods is adamant in stressing good lifestyle choices. “We always tell young women about steps you need to take including healthy weight, diet, exercise and alcohol intake. It’s awareness.”
Also, the American Cancer Society has taken a slightly different direction on self-diagnosis. While it has not said definitively that monthly self-examinations are unnecessary, it suggests that women in their 20’s and 30’s schedule a clinical breast exam at least every three years.
For women turning 40, it recommends a once a year mammogram, an X-ray of the breast whether there are signs of any abnormalities or not. For women age 50 and up, every other year mammograms are suggested.
Medicine has made enormous strides in battling breast cancer. In the 1950’s breast cancer might not have been detected until a tumor was detectable or even visible. Back then, protocols dictated that surgery was the best way to attack. But with today’s mammograms, detection at the very earliest stage, can put odds of survival as high as 90 percent. Early detection can also eliminate surgery as an option.
Early education on breast cancer remains the best insurance for early detection and survival. Breast cancer, despite amazing advances, remains the second leading cause of death from all cancers.